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With Larry Ferlazzo

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to lferlazzo@epe.org. Read more from this blog.

Teaching Opinion

Response: Teaching Literature Through ‘Choice’ & ‘Practice’

By Larry Ferlazzo — March 24, 2015 15 min read
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(This is the last post in a two-part series. You can see Part One here.)

Joe asked:

What’s the most effective way to approach literature education in the secondary classroom? Reading assigned for hw? Read alouds? Independent reading?

In Part One of this series, several educators - Nancy Steineke, Sean McComb, Nancy Frey, Doug Fisher, Bill Himmele and Pérsida Himmele - will help answer that question. You can also listen to a ten-minute conversation I had with Nancy Steineke, Sean, Bill and Pérsida about this topic on my BAM! Radio Show.

Today’s post features responses from Regie Routman, Katherine S. McKnight and Michael W. Smith.

On a different note, you might be interested in my commentary titled Why Viewing Classroom Management As A Mystery Can Be Helpful, which has been published elsewhere on the Education Week Teacher site. It’s an excerpt from my latest book, Building A Community Of Self-Motivated Learners. I hope you can join me at a free Ed Week chat on “Solving The ‘Mystery’ Of Classroom Management” on Tuesday, March 31st, 4-5 PM, Eastern Time.

Response From Regie Routman

Regie Routman is a longtime teacher and the author of many books and resources for educators. Her latest book is Read, Write, Lead: Breakthrough Strategies for Schoolwide Literacy Success (ASCD, 2014). See www.regieroutman.org for information on her books, articles, PD offerings, and to contact her:

First, let me start by saying there’s no one best way to teach anything. It depends--on the purpose, students’ interests and needs, the curriculum, time frames, literacy beliefs, teachers’ and students’ knowledge and backgrounds, and a whole lot more including our own actions as adult readers. But within all approaches to literature education, I’d make having students develop a love of reading and an appreciation for how reading can enrich their lives top priority. For the aforementioned reading culture to develop, students need to be engaged readers who have sustained time to read and to talk about books--including content area texts-- with their peers, not just the teacher. Full engagement also requires that students have wide choice in what they read and write and the opportunity to access and read and write texts of interest and relevance to them.

At the secondary level, very little explicit literacy instruction goes on in the content areas beyond teaching vocabulary, and literacy gains from the early grades do not necessarily ensure transfer to higher achievement in the upper grades. (M. Lai, A. Wilson, S. McNaughton, and S. Hsiao. “Improving Achievement in Secondary Schools: Impact of a Literacy Project on Reading Comprehension and Secondary School Qualifications.” Reading Research Quarterly, June, July, August 2014, pp. 305-306) Therefore, content area teachers must become expert teachers of literacy if all their students are to thrive.

Also, engagement and choice are as critical in the content areas as in English language arts, especially as research indicates engagement leads to greater student effort and higher achievement. Not only that, teachers and leaders need to meet regularly in vertical teams as a school and district to discuss the “how,” “what,” and “why” of teaching and applying literacy strategies K-12. Only then, do we have a chance to ensure high-enough expectations, consistency, coherence, and what constitutes a sufficient literacy and critical thinking foundation at every grade level across the curriculum.

If we can engage students’ hearts and minds, we can get them where they need to go and teach them how to learn what they need to know to go on learning--and to choose to read for pleasure and information. So first and foremost, I’d put independent reading at the center of literature education with access to books through classroom and school libraries a given. It is through independent reading of texts students want to read and can read with accuracy and understanding that students acquire a wide vocabulary, greater knowledge of the world, connections with characters, a historical perspective, understanding of viewpoints, and greater self-knowledge. For secondary students, most of these books are what some educators call “edgy” books which deal with the tough life issues teens deal with, such as, peer pressure, violence, drugs, sex, disease, mental illness, family problems, and other such related issues. One-on-one reading conferences, small group discussions led by students, and writing to deepen reading accompany such reading to ensure students are understanding and enjoying their reading.

Use daily read alouds to notice what authors do; to connect that craft to possibilities for students’ own writing; to provide necessary background information on a topic; to show what we adult readers do to comprehend text and to make visible how we think as proficient readers; to introduce students to a wide variety of authors, genres, and writing styles; to expand their literary and informational world; and to savor a terrific book as a community of readers.

Regarding homework, I’d caution not overdoing written response, which is often connected to rubrics and strict guidelines, which can turn students off to doing their best and most creative thinking. Ensure that reading homework and response are geared to being personally meaningful and deepening students’ understanding. Avoid rewards and point systems, which foster competition and do little to help students develop an intrinsic love and appreciation for reading. Choose book recommendations and reviews over book reports, which only exist in school. In the content areas, ensure the reading and writing are relevant to students’ lives and interests.

Response From Katherine S. McKnight

Katherine S. McKnight is an educator, award-winning author, and consultant specializing in adolescent literacy. She is the author of Common Core Literacy for ELA, History/Social Studies, and the Humanities: Strategies to Deepen Content Knowledge and Common Core Literacy for Math, Science, and Technical Subjects: Strategies to Deepen Content Knowledge. Follow her on Facebook or Twitter:

Yes! Do all of that! Have students read literature for homework, and have them read it aloud in class, and have them read independently during class time.

Seriously, though, we all have recognized that many of our students are simply not motivated to read. This presents a tremendous challenge. Here are some tips that I’ve found particularly helpful:

  • If a student appears to be interested in a particular subject, encourage him or her to read more about it.
    Sometimes it seems that you can’t find the time to get to know your students’ interests. I realize that. But it can pay big dividends! This tip is kind of “old school” but considering today’s convenient access to online reading material, it’s easier than ever to gratify a student’s whims quickly and conveniently.

  • Give students a voice in selecting increasingly challenging texts.

When students are allowed to choose their own reading material, they are often more motivated to complete the assigned reading. What would this look like in the classroom? If we were working on a literature unit about bullying, for example, I might let my 5th grade class choose a book from the following list:

  • The Skin I’m In by Sharon Flake
  • Stepping on the Cracks by Mary Downing Hahn
  • Secret of the Peaceful Warrior by Dan Millman
  • Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson
  • Loser by Jerry Spinelli

Although they’re all realistic fiction, these titles offer a range of reading levels, the choice between a male or female protagonist, and a variety of cultural perspectives. Most students will find something to like, so they’ll be likely want to read. Encourage student to choose appropriately challenging material by offering it. Classroom discussions can include discovering the ways these different authors dealt with a similar theme.

  • Create text study groups like literature circles or student pairs.
    Many people are more motivated to participate in an activity when they’re in groups, and students are no exception. As students read text together, encourage them to support each other.

  • Do classroom read-alouds.
    This is an ideal opportunity to model how a skilled reader thinks about a text and works toward comprehension.

  • Consider supplementing the reading of a difficult text with video and/or audio versions.
    All students, but especially the struggling readers, benefit from the extra support as they work toward more thorough comprehension of challenging ideas.

There is no one magic way to motivate all students to read. But, trust me, I’ve seen these strategies turn many reluctant readers into inspired, enthusiastic readers.

Response From Michael W. Smith

Michael W. Smith is the Associate Dean for Faculty development and Academic Affairs in Temple University’s College of Education. A long-time high school English teacher and English educator, his most recent books include Reading Unbound: Why kids need to Read What They Want--and Why We Should Let Them [2014, Scholastic, with Jeff Wilhelm] and Uncommon Core: Where the Authors of the Standards Go Wrong about Instruction--and How You Can Get It Right [2014, Corwin, with Deborah Appleman and Jeff Wilhelm]:

My response in a nutshell: Provide instruction, plenty of practice, and meaningful choice in a context that engages students in meaningful social work in the here and now. I don’t want to seem to be giving a facile response to such a complex questions, so let’s unpack the four dimensions of my answer.

Provide Instruction. On the surface, arguing that one facet of effective literature education is to provide instruction seems so obvious that it doesn’t deserve mention, but I’m afraid it’s not. Take a look at the emphasis on text-dependent questions in the instructional ideas being promulgated by David Coleman, one of the primary authors of the Common Core State Standards. As my friends Deborah Appleman, Jeff Wilhelm and I have recently argued, asking text-dependent questions is not the same thing as providing instruction, for there’s no evidence that an in-depth exploration of a particular text helps student develop the skills and strategies they need to take on a new text.

What’s the alternative? I’ve always been enamored of a quote from Margaret Meek who says that what teachers need to do is share the “list of secret things that all accomplished readers know, yet never talk about.” Let’s take a quick example. Accomplished readers know that they have to assess the reliability of first-person narrators and to reconstruct what an author means when those narrators aren’t reliable. Accomplished readers know that narrators who are inexperienced or morally compromised or too self-interested cannot be fully trusted. Accomplished readers know to be on the alert for known errors or conflicts of facts within a work. Asking a question or even a series of questions about a particular narrator isn’t an efficient way to help students develop that knowledge. It certainly isn’t a way to help students transfer what they have learned to new reading experiences. But there are promising alternatives, from using think-alouds and simulated texts that highlight and reward particular strategies to helping students articulate what they already do with the texts that populate their lives and then apply those moves to the reading they do in school.

Provide Plenty of Practice. But instruction won’t be enough if students don’t get enough time to practice what they’ve learned. Learning any complex skill or strategy requires lots of practice. Think of anything you’ve ever learned of any significance-- from hanging a ceiling fan to baking bread--and you’ll realize that it takes time to gain new abilities. That’s the lesson of the Anders Ericsson research made famous by Malcolm Gladwell.

I worry that students don’t get enough opportunity to practice the strategies that reading particular kinds of texts requires because the most commonly used sequencing principles, for example, chronology, don’t allow it. Earlier in this entry I began to sketch out what experienced readers do when they encounter unreliable narrators. It’s complicated work. Imagine now trying to teach those strategies in a British Literature class. The ironic monologues of Robert Browning would be great texts to use. But a quick look at the table of contents of a popular British literature anthology reveals that there are only two ironic monologues. And they’re followed by a sonnet from Elizabeth Barrett Browning, the reading of which requires substantially different ways of reading. Grouping texts that place similar strategic or conceptual demands on students allows them to develop knowledge that they can apply text by text.

Provide plenty of opportunities for Choice. In another recent project, Jeff and I studied the nature and variety of pleasure students take from their out of school reading. We came away from that study absolutely convinced of the motivating power of pleasure and of the fact that kids do significant interpretive work that has both personal and academic benefits from the reading that they choose to do outside school. But, sadly, we also came away from that study convinced that schools do far too much to interfere with pleasure, from assigning texts that kids don’t want to read to teaching them in a way that is not pleasurable.

So what, you might say. Sometime you have to do what you don’t want to do. But that response ignores the importance of cultivating a love of reading. A sophisticated new study from the UK makes the case for why attending to pleasure is so important. That study draws on data collected in the 1970 British Cohort Study which is following the lives of more than 17,000 people born in England, Scotland, and Wales in a single week of 1970 in an attempt to understand what factors most affect their station in life. What the study found was leisure reading had a greater impact on people’s social mobility and level educational attainment than even the amount of schooling their parents had received. This study offers compelling evidence that if we want to improve our students’ life chances, we ought to try to cultivate a love of reading.

How can we know what texts will bring our students the most pleasure? Well, we can’t.

Take a look at the texts most enjoyed by two of the young women in our study. Here’s Callie talking about her dark fiction:

So if I were responding to a situation in a fiction state of mind, I would
probably be like the teen heroine in this fiction state of mind where
something horrible happens to them, but then they emotionally grow
and strive above it. That’s my fiction voice. But a more realistic dark
character, something really horrible happens and I have no idea what to
do and I think and I ponder about what the possibilities are as I try and
try desperately to overcome this situation but never really do and end up
moving on with this situation that still is left hanging. Because that’s a way
more realistic way of life.

Now contrast that with Kylie’s comment about her romances:

The [heroine] has to make things clear to her love, and usually has to
organize things . . . for them to be together which she has to do one step at
a time because usually things are pretty complicated! And then they have to
really see and really care about each other--hopefully forever. HEA [Happily
Ever After], baby!

What book is going to appeal to both girls? Hmm. If we’re committed to maximizing our students’ textual pleasure and if we can’t know what books our students are going to take pleasure in, we have to let them choose, at least on occasion.

Provide the Opportunity for Meaningful Social Work in the Here and Now. One of my worries about the Common Core State Standards is that they entirely future directed. But as anyone who has spent any time with adolescents knows, not every kid is thinking about the future. What matters to them is the here and now.

The most powerful way I’ve found to help students see how what their learnng matters in the here and now is to embed instruction in inquiry units that focus on essential questions. Essential questions are the big and enduring questions that anaimate so much of our talk both winin and outside school. Readers love literature because it helps us think about the critical questions: “What makes me me?” “To what extent are people responsible for what happens to them?” “To what do we owe our primary allegiance?” “What makes a good relationship, or parent, or family, or leader?” The questions are complex ones. Different texts suggest radically different answers to them. Building instruction around such questions fosters a kind of engagement that other curricular structures don’t.

In short, our students will learn what we want them to learn if we share our secrets, if we give them the practice they need to develop their skills and strategies, if we provide the opportunity for choice, and if we create contexts that will allow them to experience the pleasure and value they can derive from reading.

Responses From Readers


I think that effective teaching of literature requires effective use of informational texts that open up the literary works and help students access and connect with them in rich and rewarding ways.

Thanks to Regie, Katherine, and Michael, and to readers, for their contributions!

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